#21: Irina Ratushinskaya 1998
Language of Hope, September 29, 2017
Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya left an extraordinary legacy in her poetry, her courage, and her lively humor. Arrested and sent to a forced labor camp 1983, she was eventually released and came to the West. Just before returning to her Russian homeland after many years away, she spoke at the 1998 Festival. This episode gathers her remarks and readings from several sessions, including a chapel service in which she reflected on following God with nothing at all, giving up hatred, and forgiving enemies. Ratushinskaya embodies and celebrates poetry’s remarkable resilience as an art form that can be made without any materials and secreted away in the minds of friends. Poetry, though “of no use,” lifts us up and feels like flying. The episode includes a conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and writer Lil Copan, introductory remarks from the original sessions by the late scholar Ed Ericson, and readings of English translations of Ratushinskaya’s poetry by Calvin English professors and poets Lew Klatt and Jane Zwart.
- Irina Ratushinskaya,
- Grey is the Color of Hope
- Dance With a Shadow
- Beyond the Limit
- Irina Ratushinskaya,
- “Some people's dreams pay all their bills”
- “I still think I see the city where no one lives”
- “If you can't sleep, count up to a hundred”
- “Everything repeats itself in life”
- “We are branded with Russia by a white-hot blizzard”
- “Drawing near, September has hung the stars lower”
Ed Ericson: Before I introduce Irina, perhaps I could get this much audience participation: will you please join me in a five-syllable chant, which you will say twice, and you will say: "
Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): You just heard the late Ed Ericson introducing Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya, and this is Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I’m Lisa Ann Cockrel, the Director of the Festival, and I’ll be your host.
Today, we have something a little different in store for you. Russian poet, author
Before we play that tape, Professor Ericson is going to help me provide a bit more background on this amazing poet, her life
Ed: Irina served time in the Gulag Archipelago. Her crimes, the first one listed, and I quote, was, "authorship of poetry." Another was authorship of, and I quote again, "documents in defense of human rights."
Lisa: Irina was recruited by the KGB to serve as a spy, and turned them down. She began writing poetry in earnest in her 20’s after she was fired from her job as a teacher for refusing to discriminate against Jewish students. She took up human rights work with her husband, a physicist and fellow activist, and was sentenced to forced labor in a camp in 1983 shortly after her 29th birthday.
Ed: Irina has written several volumes of poetry, two books of memoirs, and a novel. When in prison she wrote with a matchstick on bars of soap, memorized the words, and washed the evidence down the drain.
Lisa: During her nearly four years in the labor camp, she managed to smuggle out some 250 of her poems, writing them out on 4-centimeter wide cigarette paper. Her husband, who had lost his job at this point, had them published in the West. Peace talks between Reagan and
In spite of Irina’s years in the labor camp, the buoyancy of her spirit was evident during her time with us at the 1998 Festival of Faith & Writing. In addition to her deeply rooted, abiding sense of humor, her liveliness, and the fullness of her character, Irina’s words about the function of poetry as the last form of resistance in times of oppression, and its purpose in times of plenty, when people are grasping for something beyond the material, still seem timely.
I think you’ll see what I mean about her sense of humor in this short clip on why she never reads her poems in any other language than her native Russian.
Irina: [00:07:59] The idea that I shouldn't, came from America, so you must not complain. [laughter] It was in
He was singing, everyone was all excited, and in the
Lisa: [00:04:59] Before we listen to more of Irina’s reflections and poetry, I want to introduce Lil Copan, an acquisitions editor at Eerdman’s publishing. Lil is a longtime Festival participant, both as a speaker and an attendee, and she's also a writer. Her own next book, a novel titled Little Hours, comes in February 2018. And she remembers being in the audience and listening to Irina during the 1998 Festival.
Lisa: Well, thanks so much for joining me here today Lil. Often I ask people, "Where did I find you today?” And it's a little unusual today because you're actually here in my office.
Lil Copan: I'm so glad to be in your office, especially after circuitous trips down the hallways to find it--
Lisa: Exactly. We're in a round building, so you had to find [emphasizing] me today. Thank you. Well, today's episode of Rewrite Radio is also a little different because we're going to be reading together recordings from multiple sessions from the 1998 Festival of Faith & Writing, featuring the poet Irina Ratushinskaya-- or, how would you pronounce it? School me on how to pronounce her name.
Lil: I have heard two pronunciations. One is "
Lisa: And you grew up in a Russian-speaking household so we'll defer to your pronunciation there. [laughing]
You also are the one who kind of alerted me to this recording from an email. Tell me about your relationship with Ratushinskaya's recordings from the Festival.
Lil: Well, she was new to me at that time; I had not heard of her--
Lisa: --At the 1998 Festival.
Lil: --Yes, I think it was one of my first Festivals and if I left with one thing, it was the tapes of those sessions. And I just found that there was somebody who was talking about a really profoundly dark period of history, and some of it that continued-- ongoing in the labor camps and gulags for her writing poetry. So I think part of the draw was her own story about being in a labor camp and learning what it is to love one's enemies. And I-- that made a profound impact on me. And the other was-- just the way that she talked about poetry... the sort of depth of not only its meaning, but how embodied poetry is in her that I hadn't seen in any American poets which seemed very from the neck up, you know, very sort of heady but not full in that way. And I think she knew something about poetry and could articulate
Lisa: She was here in 1998 and this was after spending-- I guess she'd been in the West about ten years, so she was able to-- when she left the gulag she was allowed to go for medical treatment to London and then her citizenship had been revoked while-- her Soviet citizenship-- while she was in London, and so kind of was in exile-- was in exile for the West for about ten years, and then she was here at Calvin in 1998 just as she was about to return and talks about this in some of her sessions, which will probably come out-- where she doesn't quite know what to expect next, but she's eager to return to her homeland which she loves-- which is really interesting.
Lil: Yeah, I think she thought that you can't keep the sort of
Lisa: Indeed. Well, let's listen to this poem that Irina reads that I really loved-- of course, Irina doesn't read an English translation, so we had Jane Zwart come into the studio and read the poem. But Irina sets it up, she gives a little bit of context. Let's listen in.
Irina: It's very special for me. Yesterday I said that poetry is of no use whatsoever, that's why I love it. But this poem is an exception. It was written in the labor camp about how I wanted a cherry-red dress and it was smuggled out and published in the West-- translated-- before I was released. When I came to England, people-- having read this poem-- started giving me cherry-red dresses-- [laughter] --in all sizes. [laughter] It was more than a half dozen of them; even since I ballooned two sizes up I still can wear some of them. [laughter] So here, wow, was no use. [laughter]
Jane Zwart: [00:10:21]
“Some people's dreams pay all their bills”
Some people's dreams pay all their bills,
While others' gild an empty shell...
But mine go whimpering about a velvet dress
Cherry-red and sumptuous as sin.
O, inaccessible! Not of our world!
Nowhere to get you, or to put you on…
But how I want you!
Against all reason's reproaches -
There, in the very narrows of the heart's
Recesses - flourishes the poison
Of heavy folds, and obscure embroidery...
To beauty! Not bread, not domicile -
But unbleached, royal lace,
Enspiralled rings, sly ribbons - but no!
My day is like a donkey, bridled, laden,
My night deserted, like the prison light.
But in my soul - it's no good! I am guilty! -
I keep on sewing it, and in my mind I make
The thousandth stitch, as I do up my anorak
And try on my tarpaulin boots.
Irina: [00:11:51] In Russian it sounds like that:
Lisa: I just love that image of her in this gray labor camp, longing for a bright red dress. And in some
Lil: I think for her, poetry is hope. I mean, gray may be the color of hope, but I think poetry is the language of hope that she continues in. The ways that she talks about everything --from forgiveness to life in prison-- carries a really-- a profound, not a denigrating humor but this sort of really-- a humor that I haven't seen in this country. And she has written
Lisa: Yes, yes! She actually went back after this session-- you know, went back and spent many years writing the Russian version of "The Nanny." And I think that sense of humor, and even that ability to- to dwell in the kind of lighthearted, even superficially humorous part of life, and to take it seriously and to give it her attention speaks to a real fullness of spirit and character, which is all part of why we were so excited to present this, even though, you know, her memoir is Grey is the Color of Hope you know, and her poetry can be quite compact and bleak, you might say, and yet there's a real-- there's a liveliness to it and to her presentation that is-- we've just all, here, in the office, kind of fallen for her. [laughs]
Lil: And I have-- to return to that tape-- I mean, obviously, I've-- when I purchase my next car, I thought, I have to have something that still has a tape player in it, because I had these tapes, and the last one of them just broke two weeks ago because I was listening to it over and over--
Lisa: That's kind of amazing that here in 2017 you're looking for a car with a tape player so that you can listen to tapes for the 1998 Festival of Faith & Writing. [laughter] Well, thanks for joining me today in the office-- in the studios-- [laughs]
Lil: Oh, it's so wonderful.
Lisa: [00:15:57] Next you’ll hear Irina read her own work and discuss poetry more broadly. English translations are read by Jane Zwart who you’ve already heard, and Lew Klatt, both of whom are professors of English at Calvin College and are distinguished poets in their own rights. And now, Irina Ratushinskaya at the 1998 Festival of Faith & Writing.
Irina: In the labor camp I used to pray, "
The next poem would give you some idea of what used to be religious propaganda in the former Soviet Union, because [expertise?] during my interrogation has proven that it is a criminal poem because it is about God.
“I still think I see the city where no one lives”
I still think I see the city where no one lives,
Where the pinkies of the weeds
have pushed apart the order of the concrete,
And in the debris of the church
Like a mermaid over a slipper,
yet waits for Lady Day.
If not today, then tomorrow: after all it is summer now forever,
And the trees won't lose the children,
and they won't feel cold for clothes.
The dragonflies are triumphant,
the water in the rails has rusted,
Stars that have not been seen before are showing through.
And they're neither to be snatched away by the school bell
Nor wiped out by December:
Wolf evening and midday of wormwood --
Be consoled, Madonna!
From the grass to the beasts --
none of us will ever die
We shall be with you.
This city is already outside the law.
Irina: [00:20:05] [Russian original]
Irina: There is one thing which is good
Lew Klatt: [00:21:40]
“If you can't sleep, count up to a hundred”
If you can't sleep -- count up to a hundred,
And drive these thoughts away.
I know: I can't be reached now
and can't be helped in any way.
So don't tear, as you burn in a night fever,
The white bandage of your last sleep!
Perhaps I will soon come back again --
And then you will recognize me.
I’ll be a child or a bush --
With hands more tender there are none,
And you must invent a story for me
With a happy ending -- and true.
I will be grass or sand --
So I’ll be warmer to embrace,
But if I'm a hungry dog --
You must feed me.
Like a gypsy
But don't chase me away when you recognize me
For I'll only have come -- to take a look.
And one day in
You'll come across a frozen kitten --
And again it will be me.
And you will be granted the power to save
Anyone you like, in whatever trouble.
But by that time I will be everywhere,
Everywhere on your path.
Irina: [00:23:14] [Russian original]
Irina: You know, we're coming now to the times of wild, spiritual search both in the West and in Russia. People are interested in supernatural phenomena, people do feel that our materialistic world is not that materialistic and the most important and the most exciting things we cannot touch, we cannot measure. And I think poetry, as well as music, advocate people's ability to enter those other worlds we're longing for since we're born. People don't simply read or listen, they, while reading or
Irina: The next two poems we're going to read will give you perhaps some idea why I'm now moving back to Russia to live there after all
“Everything repeats itself in life”
Everything repeats itself in life
Everything repeats itself
Again, the night road and the hand holding mine
Everything changes in the world
If you live a while longer, you'll see that the clock has stopped
And the intricate black fingers are still
And the sum of scars and insults fades from the heart
And the stepmother stands
And you enter the final tunnel, knowing who it is that waits
In the meantime, the night road and the ticking up of numbers
And the road, unmeasured by us, gathers in the miles
And my virgin midnight star stands high and says,
"When you say goodbye, take care you don't forget me"
Irina: [00:28:43] [Russian original]
“We are branded with Russia by a white-hot blizzard”
We are branded with Russia by a white-hot blizzard,
By the rhetoric of dark funnels, of pits made of snow
Go away, eye-less woman, go away
Only, how are we to leave each other in
In our kinship in conflict with her
And when at last you break loose from the oppressive tenderness of her despotic embraces
In which to fall asleep is to do so forever,
Your head swims, as if in your first childish drag at a cigarette
And your lungs are torn to shreds like a cheap envelope
And then, as you wait for everything that has emerged alive from her unpeopled cold
To recover from the narcosis, to know that the angels of Russia freeze to death towards morning
Like sparrows in the frost falling from their wires into the snow
Irina: [00:31:05] [Russian original]
Irina: Osip Mandelstam wrote that poetry writing is like playing ball with one's father. It is like you throw a ball, "Look
Quite honestly, I never think when I write. I never think of poetry purpose at all. I mean, after, I can talk about it, but when I read some other people's poem, it is like just when
Irina: And the last one actually require no comments; it's about happiness, which I cannot find still.
“Drawing near, September has hung the stars lower”
Drawing near, September has hung the stars lower --
And in gales fish splash to them with their fins.
At night the callous waves
And the houses of the shores hide and silently listen.
A petal of space has curled up and
The hills have risen like dogs with quietly bristling hides.
A man sits drawing shapes in the sand.
In a couple of thousand
Irina: [00:38:38] [Russian original]
Irina: Thank you.
Lisa: [00:39:31] Irina also spoke to undergraduates in a Calvin College chapel during the 1998 Festival. Here she shares what she learned about her faith during her experience in prison, especially as it relates to guarding against bitterness, loving one’s enemies, and coming together with people who harbor different religious convictions.
Irina: Dear friends, I feel really privileged and honored to be this morning with you. It is not
Perhaps you remember that one of the most difficult Christ's suggestions was "Leave everything and follow me." In everyday life, we never think of doing it. Of leaving everything behind and follow God without anything at all.
So I would like to tell you my first discovery which I make an hour, about an hour after I was arrested. Because arrest in the Soviet Union really meant that the person was completely isolated, roped off anything, including one's toothbrush, and it was the first time in my life when I owned anything-- owned nothing and didn't know what would happen to me tomorrow. And instead of panic or shock or whatever-- whichever one might expect, the first sensation was the deep feeling of security.
The second lesson all of us political prisoners had to learn in the labor camp was about hatred. Again, theoretically, we all know that we are not supposed to hate, we are supposed to love our enemies, we are supposed to pray for them. How on earth it is possible to do it?
But in the labor camp, in the KGB prison, life is organized in such a way that if a person allows herself or himself to hate, it means this person would be destroyed in several weeks. There are no sources of positive emotions. There are plenty of reasons to hate, to feel
One feels this burning hate, and in several days, people become insane if they don't know how to cope with this feeling. I've seen such cases and now I'm sure that everyone who went
Then, in the labor camp, I learned what does it mean to pray for my executioners. Sometimes in the
[00:45:33] Before the church's different denominations first split in fourth century, one of the fathers of the church, which was in one piece then, Gregory Nyssen wrote that God wants to save everyone, and how it is possible if the day of the last judgment the justice is promised, not mercy, justice. If we're taught to love everyone, how can we be happy there in God's heaven knowing that not everyone is
And if everyone would forgive everyone in that day, perhaps everyone would be saved. This teaching is still in tradition of our Russian Orthodox Church, and I think it makes more or less clear why dealing with our enemies, sometimes fighting them, sometimes ruining their careers, I ruined plenty because I never took part in the interrogation, I never give any answers to the KGB questions so they were punished repeatedly for not being successful, and so did all my friends. Yes, we ruined their careers, but in the same time, just sitting during this boring interrogation, not opening our mouth, what could we do except for praying for those blinded, perhaps devil-possessed people who didn't know, actually they didn't know what they were doing. And under this pressure, in such situation, yes I can testify every human, each human being would be able to find inner resources to pray for one's enemies if those enemies are real, not imaginary.
And the third lesson I've learned in the labor camp was how people of different faith could cope together. Because there were different denomination among political prisoners, there was Catholic, Pentecostal, Baptist, Russian Orthodox, and non-believers in our little labor camp for
[00:50:07] Usually with a slice of bread and mug of water or, or even without, but we did feel the joy and warmth and we could pray together and even those who were non-believers then, years later, became converted. One of my friends-- an Estonian lady who became a politician after Estonia got her independence, she became a minister in Estonia-- then in the labor
Two years ago she was converted. God knows when and how to find [this so?]. Now she's a Catholic nun, and that's the most interesting result of being under the pressure because now I still keep in touch with my friends. We all survived and it was a miracle itself. Now I can say that everyone [inaudible], does believe in Jesus Christ now. We still belong to
For instance, now I am going back to Russia to live there. I don't know what on earth to expect now in my country. But it gives us strength, I think, to the moment when we'll hear this calling for the last time: "Leave everything and come to Me." And this last time would not be death. It would be not total destruction. It would be eternal love, God's glory, and His kingdom. Thank you.
Lisa: [00:53:02] Many thanks to Lil Copan. You can follow her on Twitter @LilCopan. Many thanks also to Jane Zwart, co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing, and Lew Klatt, former Poet Laureate of Grand Rapids, for lending us their voices.
We are also grateful to the late Calvin College English professor emeritus Ed Ericson, whose voice you heard at the very beginning of this episode, and whose advocacy played a big part in bringing Irina Ratushinskaya to the Festival. He was a lover of literature, master teacher, and consummate storyteller and he also passed away earlier in 2017. He is missed.
And finally, we’re grateful to Irina. Her courage and humor in the face of abject oppression are tangible reminders of the sustaining power and relevance of poetry.
Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College and is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Today's episode was produced by Jon Brown, Amanda Smartt, and yours truly. Our team includes Sarah Bass, Peter Ford, Gwenyth Findlay, Don Hettinga, Jennifer Holberg, Scott Hoezee, Bob Hudson, Lew Klatt, Debra Rienstra, Sarah Turnage, Chloe Selles, Isabelle Selles, Deborah Visser, and Jane Zwart.
You can learn more about the Festival of Faith & Writing at festival.calvin.edu and if you're into the social media, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you like what we're doing here on Rewrite Radio, please leave us a review on iTunes. It helps other people discover the show, and we are so grateful.
Also, we've got 26 years of Festival recordings to explore here on Rewrite Radio. And if you've been to some of these Festivals and have a favorite session or two that you are especially excited to hear on this podcast, just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me about them. Just put "Rewrite Radio” in the subject line.
Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.